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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 25.1 (2003) 69-78

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Myth as Public Dream
The Metamorphosis of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses

Deborah Garwood


Metamorphoses, a play written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, Second Stage Theatre and Circle in the Square Theatre, New York.

It has been said that Mary Zimmerman, a playwright based in Chicago, improvises rather than writes her plays: early rehearsals start with readings of source texts and players' spontaneous characterizations. Collecting a core of talent around her, she participates almost as a collaborator. This approach might sound unusual compared to playwrights who devise a script before they cast and begin to direct, but ensemble theatre groups such as Lookingglass Theatre Company, which Zimmerman helped found in 1988, often work this way. Lookingglass has been piling up awards since its inception, many of them for Zimmerman plays. Members of the ensemble who have consistently worked with her include actors Doug Hara and Lisa Tejero, stage designer Daniel Ostling, lighting designer TJ Gerckens, sound designers Andre Pluess and Benn Sussman, music composer Willy Schwarz, and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld. The playwright has also been a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University and an artistic associate of Goodman and Seattle Repertory theatres since the beginning of her career. In 1998, Zimmerman was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in recognition of her creative work and in support of its continuation. Assured of a certain amount of critical attention and financial security by this prestigious award, she nonetheless elected to keep her tenured professorship.

Prior to Metamorphoses, Zimmerman brought only a few of her productions to New York. Arabian Nights was performed at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1992. In 1993, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci was performed at Lincoln Center's Serious Fun Festival and drew a certain amount of attention to her unconventional source material and its equally unusual staging. She also directed Measure for Measure and Henry VIII at New York's Shakespeare Festival. Works produced in Chicago and Seattle in the early 1990s include The Eleven Rooms of Proust, S/M, and Secret in the Wings. The work she's best known for, though, is based on myth. [End Page 69]

Zimmerman's interest in ancient myth surfaced in the mid to late 90s and led to several adaptations produced at Chicago's Goodman Theatre and/or Seattle Repertory Theatre. An ancient Chinese tale, Hsi Yu Chi, became Journey To The West (1995); the tenth-century Persian tale Haft Paykar inspired Mirror of the Invisible World (1997); Homer's The Odyssey was dramatized in 1998; and Metamorphoses premiered at Lookingglass Theatre the same year. Zimmerman's approach to myth seems the very embodiment of Francis Fergusson's observation that "one of the most striking properties of myths is that they generate new forms . . . in the imagination of those who try to grasp them. Until some imagination, that of a poet or only a reader or auditor, is thus fecunded by a myth, the myth would seem to exist only potentially." Considering her work as a whole, Fergusson's comment definitely applies. Zimmerman can conjure a theatrical form around any source material that strikes her the right way, and her style features strongly visual, aural, and gestural elements. In these respects she draws on a legacy of avant-garde theatre dating from the cinema-saturated twentieth century. At the same time, the low-tech simplicity of her plays is a reminder that since ancient times nothing has been more basic to theatre than live spoken word and well-done make-believe. Metamorphoses splices antiquity and the avant-garde together in one play with considerable flair. Of all her adaptations to date, this may be the one she has made most her own.

Charged with passionate intensity and transparently young in spirit, Metamorphoses brings twelve mythic tales to life onstage as a synthesis of drama, myth, and archetypal psychology. While the primary source for Metamorphoses is Ovid's epic poem of the same name dating from around 8 A.D., Zimmerman...


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